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Wireless router buying guide

These days, wireless routers are everywhere. Nearly every house, apartment, business, and sketchy van down parked down by the river as one. A functional wireless router is arguably the most essential component of a wireless network, allowing you to easily connect your computer to a broadband Internet service so you share data files and stream media between rooms, among a bevy of other actions. However, choosing the necessary and proper equipment isn’t always easy — in fact, it’s often downright confusing — especially when you’re peering over a slew spec charts for a bunch of gear you’re unfamiliar with. Moreover, there’s always reason to be skeptical when it comes to performance claims. Manufacturers tend to exaggerate when it comes to capabilities.

Assuming you already own broadband Internet access via DSL, cable TV, or whatever solution you might have, the next thing you need is a wireless router that will go between your broadband Internet device and one of your PCs (or between your modem and data switch if you already have a more elaborate network). Although you could opt for a wired router, we suggest a wireless model so you can avoid stringing Ethernet cable around your home unless you absolutely have to; besides, a wireless router is the best way to access the Internet using your smartphone or tablet. And if you ever discover you absolutely must have a wired connection, the router will have a built-in switch to handle it. While you’re at it, check out DT’s expert router reviews and the best 802.11ac routers on the market, along with our guide on how to secure your wireless network.

Updated June 27, 2014 by Joe Donovan: Added new information pertaining to network standards and relative speeds.

Do you need a router?

Routers aren’t necessary for every situation. It should go without saying, but wireless routers create wireless networks. They’re not absolutely necessary if you prefer to use a hard-wired connection and run an Ethernet cable directly to your computer, but given most mobile devices lack a dedicated Ethernet port, opting for a wireless network remains the only solution for picking up an Internet connection using a smartphone or tablet. Routers also allow you to share media, stream music and video, and seamlessly connect every device in your home — whether you want to stream music to your speaker system or simply pick up an Internet connection on the other side of the room. They’re not an absolute necessity for everyone, but for most people, they represent a must-have device.

Network standards: 802.11n vs. 802.11ac

Now let’s talk about the features you should look for in a wireless router. Just like smartphones, router manufacturers are constantly implementing new and more powerful wireless standards as technology becomes more advanced, with 802.11n representing the current industry standard. Nearly every router on the market complies with the aforementioned standard, and being the case, the features is typically located at the top of the box for quick reference while shopping. There are still some 802.11n draft options on the router market, which represents an older standard, but we don’t recommend these devices.

However, the traditional single-home user will likely need a different kind of router from the heavy-gamer or media enthusiast. Furthermore, a new standard now in development that will soon render the 802.11n standard old news: 802.11ac. Capable routers touting the capability are available, such as ASUS Dual-Band AC1750 Wireless Gigabit Router and Netgear Nighthawk AC 1900 Dual-Band Wifi Gigabit Router , each of which offers considerably quicker speeds at the expense of compatibility. Though the list of electronic devices that support the new standard is constantly growing — ahem, the latest MacBook Pro — devices that support 802.11ac are far more widespread. So basically, if you get an 802.11ac router, it’ll probably still be backward compatible with all your 802.11n hardware, but you’ll have to wait for a while before you can get your hands on a device that can actually utilize your router’s 802.11ac capabilities.

Because of this rapid progress in wireless networking standards, if you have older wireless gear, you’ll want to make sure that any new router you buy will remain compatible with whatever previous IEEE standard your other hardware is based on (examples include 802.11a, 802.11b, and 802.11g). We personally recommend an 802.11ac router given it will likely work with wireless devices you already own (wireless network adapters, media-streaming boxes and so on) via backward compatibility, while additionally accommodating new devices. You can also check for the Wi-Fi Alliance’s Wi-Fi Certified logo. The alliance’s 300 member companies conduct extensive interoperability testing to ensure that products claiming to adhere to 802.11 specifications are, in fact, compatible.

Interpreting Wi-Fi network speeds

Remember, you should always take manufacturers’ speed declarations with a grain of salt. For example, many manufactures list “theoretical” maximum bandwidth on their boxes. You’ll see anything from 350 Mb/sec to 1900 Mb/sec (megabits per second), but you’ll never see throughput that high in realistic environments in which walls, doors, appliances, and other barriers separate your router from its client devices. When transferring files using TCP/IP (the most common file-transfer protocol that Windows computers use), you’ll more likely achieve speeds half of what the manufactures report — much less than that at longer distance.

The 1,900 Mb/sec claims aren’t fabrications; they’re just not based on real-world conditions. Fortunately, most wireless routers manufactured in compliance with the 802.11ac standard should be capable of streaming high-definition video over a reasonable distance, provided there aren’t too many obstacles in the path between the router and its client. Take note, having a higher maximum bandwidth won’t necessarily make for faster Internet, it will simply speed up your internal network (streaming media and files).

All wireless routers also feature built-in switches for making hard-wired network connections, but cheaper routers will have switches rated at only 100Mb/sec. You won’t regret spending a few extra dollars to buy a model with a gigabit switch (that’s 1,000Mb/sec). A gigabit switch won’t make downloading files from the Internet any faster (the fastest cable modems currently deliver only 50MB/sec to 60Mb/sec), but it will make a significant difference in the speed at which you can move files across hard-wired network connections inside your home.

Wireless data security

Wireless networks are as insecure as they are convenient — if you don’t take steps to secure your network, just about any troublemaker within range can eavesdrop on your online activities, leech off your Internet connection, access any of the files stored on your computers, infect your systems with viruses, and cause all sorts of other problems.

If you’re operating an older router that’s limited to WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy) security, however, you might as well not have any security at all. Cracking WEP security is literally child’s play. The router you buy should support at least WPA2 (the second implementation of the Wi-Fi Protected Access protocol), but every device you add to your network must also support WPA2 for this to work. Your network is only as secure as the least-secure device that’s connected to it.

How many bands do I need?

Manufacturers have sold dual-band routers for years, but now many are starting to roll out tri-band routers as well. What does all this dual-band and tri-band business mean? Dual-band typically means that the router is equipped with two radios: one that operates on the 2.4GHz frequency band, and one that runs on the 5.0GHz frequency band. This enables you to set up two separate wireless networks, which is nice to have if you want to use one network exclusively for transferring data files and the other for streaming media. Make sure you read the fine print though — some dual-band routers only have one radio that can operate on either the 2.4GHz or 5.0GHz bands, but not both at the same time. For example, the ASUS Dual-Band Wireless-N 600 Router is capable of running on the 2.4GHz and 5.0GHz bands simultaneously.

Tri-band routers are a bit of a new thing. There are a few true tri-band routers available on the market. One example is the Netgear’s AC3200 Nighthawk X6 Smart Wifi Router. Using a new technique to beam the radio signal directly to the antennas of connected devices (a process called beamforming) allows some of these routers to achieve data throughput rates of 3.2Gbps — considerably faster than the measly 300Mbps that 802.11n routers are capable of.

If you’re only looking to get basic Internet access and don’t need all these bells and whistles, you can save a bit of money by going with a single-band router like the Securifi Almond.

Quality of Service

Despite the label, Quality of Service (QoS) is not related to the quality of your Internet connection; rather, it’s a set of mechanisms within the router’s firmware that reserves certain resources for different applications. If you rely on a VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) service, such as Vonage, for telephone service, QoS allows you to configure the router to assign that data flow higher priority. So if someone in your home is downloading a large file while you’re talking on the phone, the quality of your call won’t degrade. QoS can also be used to optimize your network’s performance with online games, video streaming, and similar applications. QoS can’t increase your network’s bandwidth or speed up your Internet access, but it can make the best use of the online resources you do have.

USB connections

The last router feature we’ll examine is USB support. You’ll find USB ports on many routers, but it’s important to find out what that port is used for. On some routers, it’s merely a means of transferring setup information (network ID and password, for example) from the router to a client via a USB memory key. Better routers will allow you to plug in a USB mass-storage device to add NAS (network-attached storage) functionality. Plug a large USB hard drive into your router and every device on your network will have access to that storage resource — it’s like having a cheap server. A good number of routers on the market have USB support, such as the Netgear N900.

What to spend: price vs. performance

Let’s sum up with a discussion of prices. Depending on the type you get, you can spend anywhere from $35 to nearly $300 on a wireless router. Most 802.11ac routers will likely cost you a bit more, but the cheapest products will likely sacrifice advanced features such as Quality of Service, USB connectivity, and dual or tri-band radios. They might also be more difficult to set up and may not have strong tech support on tap. If you don’t need those features and are confident in your own skills, those shortcomings won’t matter.

A cheap router that delivers subpar performance, however, is no bargain. Product reviews will give you a hint as to what you can expect, but setting one up in your own home is the only sure way of knowing how the router will perform in your unique environment. When you buy yours, make sure the retailer you do business with offers a liberal return policy if you’re not satisfied.

This article was originally published by Drew Prindle November 14, 2012.